Until recently, my perception of self did not include skin pigment. I have presented myself by many things: Religion, profession, occupation, tribe, clan, and nationality; by my social responsibilities and professional memberships, by age group, gender, name it. Never before did I ever think about the color of my skin as a description. What an irony! How could I have missed that? Skin is the largest and most prominent organ that I have. I am well endowed with a deep and rich concentration of color, how could I have been so blind? Or … was I? Maybe it was too obvious to be mentioned? Maybe I sub-consciously suppressed it? Recent reflections brought back memories of a trip I took with British rail. A young lad changed seats when I pulled in next to him. At the time, that didn’t bother me. If he wasn’t appropriately exposed, it was his parent’s fault; not his and certainly not mine. I have also witnessed my own countrymen and women practice what I have come to know as ‘white privilege’. There has been a few occasions where I was confronted with racism firsthand. However, even my South African experience as an employee, and later consultant, in the 90s and early 20s, did not drill deep enough to cause me to consider skin color in my approach to work and life.
Recent events thousands of miles away, violently shook the scales off my eyes. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmand Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the subsequent eruption of anger and discontent led by the Black Lives Matter movement couldn’t be ignored. I have gotten exposed to deep and eloquent arguments forcing me to cogitate upon every aspect of my life, and coaching is a significant part of it. Some of the questions have been: Do I, and should I, have a flavor of my roots in the coaching process? Perhaps clients have sought me out for my experience, intensity, authenticity and simplicity, I don’t know what else; but would and should they notice my skin color? Supposing they did notice my color, should that make a difference? Initially I thought, ‘NO’, my coaching should and must be colorless! But then, like I mentioned, I am becoming so aware of this deep skin dye thing, it is difficult to return to the colorlessness mode. So, how can I use my new found consciousness for good?
Jennifer L. Ebeerhardt’s piercing question helped me to make the decision. She challenges, “Where can we be black if we can’t be black in Africa”? Wow! That was huge for me. Similarly, Ibram X. Kendi is making an effort to promote anti-racism. Anti-Racism calls for proactively addressing the unfair and inequitable consequences a group suffers because of institutional racism. From his explanations, what I call colorlessness is far from being anti-racist. I am learning from him, and other passionate authors on race, that I need to proactively participate in the game. Mine will be a different level of involvement; I will look for ways to deliberately enhance my clients’ coaching experience by adding an African flavor. The COVID-19 situation has set the stage: E-coaching is providing less formal environments for both clients and coaches; sessions seem to be lasting longer and coming more frequently; the stakes are higher for clients, therefore coaches need creative ways of calming their clients and transporting their minds to more creative realms. The pivotal question then becomes; how do I apply the African spirit to positively impact coaching conversations, taking into account our current realities? I find some answers in my own socialization in matters to do with conversation. What makes an African conversation special? The storytelling that fervently captivates senses; the thoroughness and detail typically involving the past, present and future; the humor, emotional connection and openness between teller and listener; the natural environment, open air, music and color. Such is the magic that is wrapped in a ‘no frills’ African conversation.
All the above and more, I am daring to embed in coaching conversations. The sessions might be longer, but client feedback about the new approach includes terms like authentic and fun. I am observing faster building of trusting relationships, lower anxiety, deeper reflections, and more energy in execution of action plans. A few things are changing from my perspective as well: I now provide for more time for each session; and I am less concerned about following particular models. The process too has changed: We typically will start with open storytelling which I have found to have a calming effect on the clients. Storytelling reveals deep seated assumptions and beliefs, and naturally builds the bond between client and coach. We hold coaching sessions, whether in-person or virtual, in natural environments while sipping a cup of tea or coffee allowing our minds to blend and flow with nature. Being conscious of my roots has prompted me to be even more aware of my clients’ backgrounds. The initial contracting process now has points of discussion to unveil deeper cultural preferences that would otherwise have remained silent. No doubt, both parties are enjoying the spiced alternative. I am paying careful attention to how the sessions are running, to the feedback I am getting, to the value addition, and to my own feeling about the process. There are patterns unfolding that may birth a model which could be truly African, who knows? In the meantime, I will continue coaching with a touch of my roots.
By Norah Njuba Bwaya PhD. PCC.